Palestinian-Israeli peace gains are "irreversible," the international grouping guiding the peace process said.
"The Quartet expressed its considered view that the bilateral negotiations process launched at Annapolis is irreversible and that these negotiations should be intensified in order to put an end to the conflict and to establish as soon as possible the state of Palestine, living side by side in peace and security with Israel," said the statement that emerged Monday after the foreign minister-level meeting in New York of the members of the Quartet -- the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations.
"Annapolis" refers to the renewed talks spurred by the Bush administration a year ago in Maryland.
Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli opposition leader leading in the polls ahead of Feb. 10 elections, has rejected some of the Annapolis tenets, particularly its prescription for Palestinian statehood as soon as possible. It's not clear where the talks now stand, but Ehud Olmert, the scandal-tainted prime minister whose resignation led to new elections, has said that Israelis will have to settle for two states more or less on 1967 lines and sharing Jerusalem.
President Bush and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who attended Monday's meeting, have said they want talks as advanced as possible when they hand over the administration next month to President-elect Barack Obama.
The statement also:
- Encouraged the renewal of an Egypt-brokered cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, the terrorist group controlling the Gaza Strip. The three-month cease-fire is due to lapse on Friday, and Israel, Egypt and some elements in Hamas want to renew it, while other Hamas figures are opposed. "In this regard, the Quartet expressed concern that the Egyptian-brokered calm had been challenged, condemned indiscriminate attacks on Israel and called for an immediate cessation of violence," it said, referring to the recent intensification of rocket fire from Gaza aimed at Israel's southern towns. It also expressed its "acute concern regarding the recent increase in the closures of crossing points in response to violence in Gaza, which have limited the range and quantity of basic commodities." Israel has sequestered Gaza in a bid to stop the rocket fire.
- Praised the Palestinian Authority for introducing security forces in the West Bank towns of Jenin and Hebron after a training program designed and led by U.S. officials. Israeli defense officials have said the program is promising but does not yet adequately confront terrorism.
- Pressed donor nations to fulfill pledges made in Paris earlier this year, when the Palestinian Authority was promised more than $7 billion in funding; Western nations have made good on the pledges while Arab nations are lagging.
- Called on the Palestinians "to continue their efforts to reform the security services and dismantle the infrastructure of terrorism" and "called on Israel to freeze all settlement activities, which have a negative impact on the negotiating environment and on Palestinian economic recovery, and to address the growing threat of settler extremism," a reference to settler riots earlier this month in the Hebron area.
High Court Rejects New Fence Route
Israel's Supreme Court rejected a new route for part of the security fence, saying it juts too far into the West Bank.
Israel had proposed a route near the Arab village of Bilin following a High Court of Justice ruling last year that the fence should be moved closer to Israel.
The court rejected the revised plans Monday, saying the route still placed too much Palestinian land on the Israeli side of the fence. Bilin's Palestinian residents say the security fence hampers access to their farmlands.
Bilin attorney Michael Sfard told the Jerusalem Post that the ruling would affect other court challenges against the security fence.
There are weekly left-wing protests of the Bilin fence.
Israel Releases Palestinian Prisoners
Israel released more than 200 Palestinian prisoners. The release began Monday at noon, with most of the prisoners transferred from Ofer Prison, near Jerusalem, to a West Bank checkpoint. The others were scheduled to be sent from Shikma Prison in the Negev to the Erez checkpoint in Gaza.
Some 227 Palestinian prisoners were set to be freed, but the release of three was still under review.
Israel's High Court of Justice canceled a temporary injunction against the release, following several petitions claiming it would cause more terrorism and that some of the prisoners had "blood on their hands."
The release was a confidence-building measure for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in honor of a Muslim holiday. All of the prisoners belong to factions that support the Palestinian Authority and its leadership. None are associated with Hamas, according to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
"Our joy will be complete only when all 11,000 Palestinians imprisoned in Israel will be released," Abbas said during celebrations to welcome the prisoners home.
There were no celebrations in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, according to Ynet, since none of the released prisoners were members of Hamas.
-- Briefs courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency.